Marjane Satrapi is the author of the acclaimed autobiographical novel “Persepolis” and the co-director of the feature film adaptation, which secured a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Animated feature. I interviewed Marjane Satrapi early in December for the Seattle P-I. I had a generous 25 minutes with her – it was her last interview of the day – and only a tiny portion of the interview was used in the final piece, “A Moment With Marjane Satrapi.”
Here is the (mostly) complete interview. Note that Ms. Satrapi speaks (at least) three languages. English is her third language. Maybe her fourth?
My review of the film can be found here at the Seattle P-I.
I read your graphic novels about a year ago and saw the film at Toronto. I thought it was remarkable how faithful the movie is to the character of the art and style of the original novels, and yet so fluid and creative in its use of the animation medium. What was the biggest challenge in moving from the static panel of the graphic novel to the medium of animation?
The first thing was to understand is that it is not the same narration, so we had to forget about the book and really start to make a new narration but with the same material. And that’s why, as you say, the book and the movie, they are very similar and at the same time they are very different and that is the whole paradox. In the relationship that reader, as with the comic books, and the viewer with the movie, to start with that, is not the same. Unlike literature, when you read a comic book, you are very active as a reader because between two frames you have to imagine the movement yourself. When you are watching a movie you are passive because you see the images. We’ll start with that. Then you have things like the sound, the music, etc., so if there is a feeling that I have to describe with one word or draw something in a comic, for example, I can count on the music to get this feeling. So it’s not the same medium. The whole danger of this project was to do exactly what everybody thought I would do, to take a camera and take it from the frame, one after the other, and think that we will get a movie. Since we knew this danger, we tried to avoid it as much as possible. And we thought about it as a movie, not even as an animated movie. We made it like a movie, the only thing is that it was drawn. People talk about animated movies as if it was a style. It’s not a style, it’s just a technique. It’s like comics. “Comics” is not a style, it’s not just superhero stories, it’s a medium. Animation is the same thing. So we approached it this way and just tried to make a movie.
Did you ever consider making it as a live action film?
Not at all because for a subject like that and for the purpose we had, me and Vincent, we wanted the story to be much more universal. I didn’t want it to become a political or historical or sociological statement, because I’m not a politician and I’m not a historian and I’m not a sociologist. I’m one person and I believe that there is only one thing that is important and that’s the human being, the individual. Individualism is the basis of democracy, without individualism we don’t have any. As soon as you make a movie in a geographical place with some type of human being, then it becomes the story of the Middle-Eastern, far from us: “They’re not us, they’re foreign.” There’s something about the abstraction of the drawing that everybody can relate to because drawing is the first language of the human being, before writing, before even the use of the language. We have so many different kinds of narration in the movie. We have the scenes of normal life, we have the puppet things that are the historical scenes, we have the more realistic scenes, meeting with the guard and all these scenes of the war, etc. The animation became an obvious choice, because otherwise we would have done something do vulgar going in the other direction. And that helped a lot.
As you note, comics is not a style, it’s a medium. So why did you choose the simple, stripped down cartoon style of a newspaper comic strip for the graphic novel in the first place?
First of all, this is my style, but second of all, in a comic the drawing part of the narration is not illustration. Whatever you don’t write, you draw, and vice-versa. All the comics that I have made until now, the thing is that it’s lots of text and the story is very complicated. When you start adding in small stuff and background, each thing becomes so heavy, so I had to make it lighter. Personally, I don’t like the small lines here and there. For me, when I make comics, the drawing is to serve my story and not the contrary. I’m not making a performance, “Oh, look how beautiful I can draw the muscle.” And I like that.
Did you turn to anyone in particular to see the different ways to get a story told? Or, conversely, did you look around to see how you didn’t want to do your story?
No, I didn’t look. I really didn’t look. I was very much helped by my friends because they were cartoonists, you know, because they were really good at telling me “You shouldn’t do this or that,” but they were friends, they were not trying to influence my style, not at all. The same thing for the movie. I didn’t go out and watch a movie and say, “I want to do this,” you know. My influences, of course I have influences, but that is from all the books I have read, all the movies I have seen, all the music I have listened to, all the sculpture I have seen, whatever has interested me in my life. Even a conversation between two people is an influence. So everything has been an influence for me, it’s not specifically something that I have looked at and said, “I want to do it this way.” No, I always wanted to do it my own way.
What made you think that graphic storytelling and a comic-strip style was an effective and appropriate way to tell your story? Or is it you, as a cartoonist, was looking for a story to tell and you turned to your own story?
No, it’s not that. It’s that I have a brain that functions with text and images so this is it.
Have you always been a cartoonist?
No, but I always drew and wrote at the same, until I said, “This is what I want to do.” And it’s funny, it’s always a problem with drawing. Nobody would ask a writer, “Why did you write a book and why didn’t you dance? Or sing or make a movie?” We all the time have to justify ourselves. There are people who like to write or like to draw. We are a little bit like the bisexual of the culture. People don’t have any problem if you are a heterosexual or a homosexual, but if you like both men and women, that becomes a problem. We’re like that. We like to write and we like to draw and we cannot choose between the two. So I guess I’m a cultural bisexual (start laughing at the metaphor).
I bring it up because graphic novels are becoming more common and more accepted as a form of storytelling, but it seems like the only thing “Persepolis” ever gets compared to is Art Speigelman’s “Maus.”
I imagine that’s because both tackle major historical events, both are autobiographical, and both are graphic novels, but there is a huge difference between the two approaches and a whole world of other graphic novels and comics out there.
Yes, and Art and me are the lucky ones. At least people remember us. Before reading “Maus,” I didn’t come from a culture of comics so of course the idea I had of comics was like everybody else: It’s reading for kids or adolescents or retarded adults. Until I read “Maus” and I was like, “Wow.” It’s just the medium. And I was so surprised. I love this book. Art is my hero, he’s just a genius, and it was extremely inspiring to me, to take it as a medium and not as a style of writing.
Were you really a fan of groups like Abba and heavy metal music when you were young?
Well, you know, I had bad taste like all adolescents. I was full of hormones and I had very bad taste. But that was for a very short period. Since I was 15 or 16, I listened to fairly good music. I didn’t listen to heavy metal anymore.
I just was curious what it meant to you as an adolescent girl in Iran in the early eighties?
The same thing that it means to you. The only thing is that when you were an adolescent, you would just go into a shop and buy it. We had to go to the black market. But it’s exactly the same thing, that you rebel, that you want to destroy your parents in order to grow up, that means you are full of hormones. And then when I was older I suddenly discovered Janis Joplin. That was not really my generation, I was born the time that she died, but then when I discovered that I wanted to be Janis Joplin, I wanted to be Iggy Pop, I wanted to be all these people. Like everybody else, it meant the same.
What inspired your use of the song “Eye of the Tiger” in the film as the anthem for Marji picking herself up?
Because “Eye of the Tiger” is really the symbol of “If you want, you can,” and all of that, but the problem is that you want to but you can’t. And you know, that was a little parody of this whole idea.
The Marji in the film is very spunky and willful, but up through her teenage years she is very self-absorbed and that feels very honest and more familiar than I’d like to admit, most kids and teenagers are very self-absorbed until they really learn something about the world.
I still am. (laughs)
That’s not a side of growing up we see in our heroes and heroines, especially in films about children.
If you show somebody that is too perfect, nobody can relate to them. We all have our fears and all of that. I am not honest because of the moral order. My honesty is that it makes me lose less time because when you are honest, you don’t have to lie. Because each time you lie, you have to make another lie to cover this first lie, etc. At least if you are honest, all this time that I have to spend covering my lies, I could be doing something more fun, like sleeping or listening to music. That’s why I am honest, because it just takes too much energy and it bores me to be dishonest. Otherwise I would have been dishonest.
Was that painful to revisit these aspects of your past?
Not really, no. In life there is all these things that you don’t want to remember. I don’t have all this good stuff but I have a very good memory which is very good and very bad at the same time. You survive because of the fact that you can forget some facts, but I don’t forget anything so once in a while things are on my brain and they go forever and ever and ever. But at the same time, it helps me when I want to tell stories, it helps me on everything, and also no one can cheat on me because I remember exactly everything.
I like how, in the graphic novel, you use a different style of art when relating the history, like a stained glass window look, and in the movie it becomes like stick figure puppet theater. I think that’s a great way of separating it because it frames history as a story told to you.
Yes, exactly. You are completely right. Because you have sixteen years of life with all this information, so you have to look for a solution in order to say, “This is history and this is the history you has been told.” And graphically you see it, so if any other time you see it, right away you know that is the history that has been told. And we had to find a way also to make it interesting and not to lose the dynamism of the movie, so the whole time we were just trying to find a solution.
Your story is so much about adjusting to sudden change around you, first after the revolution in Iran, then your life changing completely when you go to Vienna, and then returning to Iran years later, again an outsider.
Yes, but contrary to the book we had to find an axis for the movie, because you cannot say sixteen years of a life in a movie. You can go in all directions and actually you can find yourself in five movies in one, which is a disaster. At the time I started to write this script, I was in a very nostalgic part of my life, so the axis of this movie was the nostalgia, it’s the story of this woman who goes into this airport, she doesn’t have anything to go back to, so she sits in this airport and she remembers everything, so the structure of the movie is based on a flashback. The turning point is the exile. Everything comes to this exile, this exile justifies whatever comes next. And this is typically the life and the vision of an exiled person because you take a step back, which is uncomfortable. Though I am French, I see it with a little bit of distance, so it makes me a little bit cooler than [French born citizens]. But then this distance that I have, I have it with my own country also. So in a way, you become a stranger everywhere, but in a way you are also an insider everywhere. I always say, for me, when people ask, “How do you feel, more French? More Iranian?” I say, “I’m sitting between two chairs. It’s not very comfortable, it’s true, but when I want to lie down I can because I have two chairs. Everybody else has one chair, they are comfortably seated, but they cannot lie down.” So it has its pluses and its minuses. I try to think more about the pluses.
I’ve heard that the film will not be allowed to be shown in Iran.
But there are so many Iranian movies that are even shot in Iran that are not shown in Iran. “The Taste of Cherry” by Kiarostami was not shown in Iran, “Offside” by Jafar Panahi was not shown in Iran. There are movies that are made in Iran but are shown outside of Iran. But it doesn’t mean people will not see it.
Which “Persepolis” film shows. People are getting western pop music, fashions, lipstick, they even get alcohol. And so people are obviously going to be able to see this film when it comes out on DVD. So my question is, has anyone inside Iran seen it already and if so, have you heard of their reaction?
No, because there is no DVD yet. Also, whatever information I have about what is happening right now in Iran is second hand information. I have not been there in eight years so I don’t know, because I don’t trust the news. The time I left Iran, the things I was hearing about Iran, it was so much bullshit. I was like, “This is not like that.” In this whole ten years, they have not gotten better, they have gotten worse. So now they lie to us even more than they did before. So I don’t trust what I see, this is the first thing. Then, my feelings are so much mixed with my melancholy and my nostalgia that, of course I have a point of view but my point of view cannot be public because this point of view can influence people, but I even don’t myself trust this point of view so how can I share it? That’s why this story has a date. It starts in 1978, it ends in 1994, and I can talk about this period. Not what has happened before and after, like some people who ask me about the nuclear weapons. If I had the answer to all of that, first of all I would be the king of the universe or something. I’m not. And as an artist, it’s not even my duty to have answers. My duty is to ask questions. Where other people, they have very simple answers to very complicated questions, I try to question people to make them understand that it’s much more complex than they think, that there are many different ways of seeing the thing. It’s just a question of point of view. I remember when I was a child, we were reading, in the history books, that we were Persian and we were the brave ones and the Romans came and we kicked them all in the ass. Then I went to Italy and I read the history books of the Italian kids, where the Romans are the brave ones and we’re going to kick all the Iranians in the ass. Both of the point of views are right, it’s just if you are on the Roman’s side or you’re on the other side. If you admit that, it’s a big step towards civilization.
Why did you decide to keep the monochrome pallet for the animated film?
It was not even a question for us, it was obvious. For me, it was not possible to do it otherwise, that was the only way of doing it. Plus, for this flashback structure, it helped a lot. She goes into this airport and she remembers her past and then it turns into black and white. It’s like the contrary of “The Wizard of Oz.” (NOTE: In the interview, she actually called the film “The Magician of Oz,” which I thought was lovely.)
That answers another question, of why did you frame it in color with the airport. And it sounds like, in some ways, that it is a way to capture what you were talking about earlier about how an exile feels.
Of course, of course. Some people say, “Yes, this is because the color is the happiness of the west.” And I was like, “Listen, Vienna was also in black and white and the scene in color is the most sad scene in the movie. It’s this lonely chick in the middle airport remember her past. What’s so happy about that?” All the funny parts are in black and white. It’s really for reasons of narration and it helps a lot.
For me, the color carries a lot with it. It carries the possibility of a new life and hope, it also carries a sense of the present, the now of the film.
Yes, exactly, for me that was it.
The original French language version is playing in Seattle, but I know you were involved in an English language version, and that you got Iggy Pop to be one of the voices.
Yes, absolutely. I also directed the English language version myself. Iggy Pop does the Uncle Anouche voice and Sean Penn is the father and Gena Rowlands is the grandmother. I had a lot to work with these people. Iggy Pop was even more impressive than what I thought because he is the sweetest man, he is extremely kind and extremely sweet. Really very, very nice, I would say a gentleman, I would call him “Your Highness,” because he’s a real gentleman and I really like him a lot.
Do you have plans for another graphic novel or another film?
I have plans for another book, for another film, for lots of things. The only thing is, since the movie has been finished, I’ve been out promoting all the time and it is extremely tiring. It’s not like when I make a book, I am doing something, I am producing something. Here, I’m not producing anything. So I just wait until my promotion to be finished, then I will go on vacation, I will smoke lots of cigarettes, I will be sitting, not talking, smoking lots of cigarettes, and lots of ideas will come. I like that I can make another script and make another book and make all of that happen.